In two months, the asteroid sample collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will come down to Earth. On September 24, a capsule looking like something from a 60s sci-fi show will fly through the atmosphere and land in the Utah desert. The team has practiced the collection of the capsule several times, and last week they were able to do the most realistic dress rehearsal yet, right where the capsule will come crashing down.
The stage for this incredible delivery is the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. That’s about 130 kilometers (81 miles) southwest of Salt Lake City. OSIRIS-REx will drop the capsule containing the sample and continue to fly towards a different asteroid, the notoriously dangerous Apophis. The capsule has no guidance, so it will land somewhere within an ellipse of 58 by 14 kilometers (36 by 9 miles).
The team practiced collecting soil samples, prepping the capsule for transportation, and even flying the helicopter to where the capsule will be brought back. There it will be prepared and taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where its precious cargo will begin to be analyzed.
“That is where the science canister itself will be opened. It will be opened in a specialized clean room and inside a glovebox,” Sandy Freund, the OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin, previously told IFLScience. “The first time the sample will be exposed will happen down at Houston.”
On October 20, 2020, the spacecraft flew down towards the surface of Asteroid Bennu to collect some soil. The goal was to get at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material, but the mission was actually too good. It collected so much stuff that some large rocks blocked the sampler head, leading to some material flowing out. Regardless, NASA estimated that between 400 and 1,000 grams (14-35 ounces) of material were collected.
Asteroid Bennu was selected because it is believed to have changed very little since the formation of the Solar System. Studying its properties is like opening a time capsule left over from the birth of the planets.